3 Tips for Overcoming Student Voting Barriers

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Anne Dennon
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Anne Dennon covers higher education trends, policy, and student issues for BestColleges. She has an MA in English literature and a background in research strategy and service journalism....
Published on August 31, 2020
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  • The youth vote can be a powerful force, but young people are the least likely to vote.
  • Many college students are stymied by bureaucratic barriers to voter registration.
  • Inaccessible registration and voting practices amount to voter suppression.

The last big youth voting spike occurred in 2008. At that time, young people helped Barack Obama win the U.S. presidential election and brought progressive policy ideas into the mainstream.

The youth vote is powerful, but as a voting demographic, 18-to-29-year-olds consistently have the lowest voter turnout.

Bucking that trend could have seismic effects in the upcoming presidential election. Millennials and Gen Zers represent the largest share of eligible voters in 2020. But young people — especially college students — face a number of barriers to casting their votes.

“College and university students today are more diverse than ever, and while they are not a monolithic group, the 20 million students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities present a formidable voting bloc.” Source: — 2018 National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement Link:More Info

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Roadblocks to student voting include stringent proof-of-residence requirements, restrictions on the kinds of ID that can be used, and a crackdown on pop-up campus voting sites. Some politicians argue that the rule changes are attempts to stop election fraud, but others claim they prevent the underrepresented youth voice from being heard at the polls.

COVID-19 has also hindered student voters. Prior to the pandemic, conservative states offered narrowing voting opportunities to college students, particularly out-of-state students. With the nationwide campus shutdown, students now lack the voting resources and reminders they used to get from their schools.

3 Essential Tips for Student Voters This Fall

According to a 2016 study, 90% of young Americans possessed an interest in politics, and 80% planned to vote in that year's presidential election. By the time November rolled around, however, only 43% of people between the ages of 18 and 29 cast their vote.

A wide gap exists between young people's political interests and their voting behavior — but it's not because of apathy. In their 2020 book "Making Young Voters," authors John B. Holbein and D. Sunshine Hillygus contend that purposefully difficult registration and voting requirements interrupt students' efforts to vote.

Casting a vote means following through on your political beliefs. And the best way to prepare to do this is to tackle the registration and voting process step by step.

Register to Vote As Soon As Possible

Voting is a two-step process: You must register to vote in order to cast your ballot. Some states allow same-day registration, but most do not.

In the states that require preregistration, potential voters must register by a deadline before election day. These deadlines vary by state but typically fall within a month of the election.

Register Online

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Thirty-nine states, in addition to Washington, D.C., allow online voter registration.

Register by Mail

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To vote in states that do not offer online registration, print and mail in the National Mail Voter Registration Form.

Registering to vote in most states requires a valid mailing address and a piece of identification, but certain areas are stricter about the types of ID they'll accept. Some states may accept student IDs for voting purposes, whereas others may require an in-state driver's license, a personal identification card, or another type of official state ID.

Some states may also ask for proof of residence, like your in-state address on a bill you've received. While some jurisdictions have attempted to prevent out-of-state students from voting, a 1979 Supreme Court decision upholds students' right to vote in the jurisdiction where they attend college. Ultimately, it's your choice where you want your vote to be counted.

Register in Your Home State or College State

You can only vote in one state. College students who attend school in another state must choose where they want to cast their vote. The state you select dictates the state and local elections you can participate in and impacts how your vote will be counted in federal elections.

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    To vote in your home state while going to school in another state, register as an absentee voter and have your ballot sent to your school address.
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    To vote in your home state as an in-state student, register to vote using either your parents' address or your school address; your designated address will determine which local elections you can vote in.
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    To vote in your college state as an out-of-state student, change your voter registration to your school address.

Once you choose where you want to cast your vote, research the process of registering to vote in that state. College students face unique barriers when attempting to vote, but registering early can help you avoid last-minute obstacles.

For the 2020 presidential election, at least a dozen states have pushed back registration deadlines, giving you more time to determine where and how you can vote.

Figure Out Where and When to Vote

The majority of states permit mail-in voting. With this option, you'll receive your ballot in the mail, fill it out, and then either mail it back (no postage necessary) or drop it in a ballot box. Only in specific circumstances — like if you're stationed overseas or living abroad — are you allowed to vote online.

A growing number of states have embraced mail-in voting due to the coronavirus pandemic.

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A growing number of states have embraced mail-in voting due to the coronavirus pandemic. In states that still require a justification to mail in your ballot, you must vote in person at an official polling location.

A list of designated polling places should be mailed to you by your state's election office. With most campuses closed and some state legislatures' removal of temporary, on-campus voting sites, students who intend to vote in person will have to make their own travel plans to get to a polling place.

In-person voting takes place on election day, which is November 3. To cast your vote by mail, check your state's mail-by date.

A group of smiling college students face the camera to show off their voting pins.

Ariel Skelley / DigitalVision / Getty Images

Student Voting Surge on the Horizon

Many young people fail to vote, but that doesn't mean they're not political. The growing politicization of university campuses and students caused college student voter turnout to more than double between 2014 and 2018 — a strong sign that the youth vote is rebounding.

College student voter turnout more than doubled between 2014 and 2018.

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The campaign issues important to students include college affordability and student debt forgiveness, as well as racial equity, climate change, gun control, and healthcare. The young voters who participated in the 2018 midterm elections overwhelmingly supported liberal causes.

The recent influx of Black Lives Matter protests also emphasizes the importance of voting. Overall, the political issues students care about in 2020 are poised to cause a surge in youth voting.

As New York Times election reporter Michael Wines writes, "After decades of treating elections as an afterthought, college students have begun voting in force."

Additional Student Voter Resources

Feature Image: adamkaz / E+ / Getty Images

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